A Houston-based biotech startup has fresh funds to continue R&D on its products. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based biotech company that was founded by a University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center doctor has closed a fresh round of funding.

Cellenkos closed its $15 million series A round led by BVCF Management, based in Shanghai, China. The biotech company is developing novel T regulatory (Treg) cell therapies to treat autoimmune and inflammatory disorders. Dr. Simrit Parmar of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Golden Meditech Holdings Limited founded the company.

Dr. Parmar's specialty is in Lymphoma Myeloma and experimental therapeutics. According to a news release, she is also the principal investigator of a research laboratory focused on umbilical cord blood-derived Treg cells including their isolation and ex-vivo expansion for generating clinically relevant doses for their application in autoimmune diseases and inflammatory disorders.

"We feel fortunate to welcome BVCF as a new investor. As I look ahead, we are committed to bringing our novel Treg cell therapies to patients in need around the world," says Dr. Parmar in a news release.

BVCF is a health care investment firm focused on growth-stage healthcare companies from around the world. The portfolio has a particular focus on innovative solutions that address unmet health needs in China.

"Cellenkos' innovative and transformative Treg cell therapy platform to address autoimmune and inflammatory disorders has the potential to significantly serve unmet patient needs. We are proud to lead the financing and support their groundbreaking efforts," says Dr. Zhi Yang, managing partner at BVCF, in the release.

The company has plans to launch a phase 1b trial of add on therapy with one of its products for the treatment of myelofibrosis patients. The fresh funds will allow the company to continue to scale and test its life-saving technology.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the trial. Photo via uth.edu

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco
UTHealth has created a clinic that will provide a myriad of expert physicians for patients still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms. Photo via Getty Images

New clinic in Houston opens to help patients recovering from COVID-19

post-COVID treatment

Houston's first clinic for treatment of patients still coping with symptoms of COVID-19 has opened at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The clinic, part of the new UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence, is staffed by specialists in cardiology, general medicine, neurology, infectious disease, pulmonology, psychiatry, and otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat). Telehealth and in-person visits are available.

"The UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence brings together our university's experts in adult and pediatric specialty care, public health, biomedical research, and big data analytics — all working to provide the best outcomes for our patients, the best public health and prevention practices for our community, and the best therapies for the virus' short- and long-term impacts," Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo, president of UTHealth, says in an October 15 release.

Among other things, the COVID-19 Center of Excellence will work on developing reliable testing for the coronavirus, authenticating effective therapies, applying analytics and artificial intelligence to care and research, and collecting virus samples for a "biobank" to study how genetics affects the virus' severity.

Since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists and physicians at McGovern Medical School have led clinical trials and treatment protocols, including one of the world's first double-lung transplants for a coronavirus patient. UTHealth is participating in some of the largest national clinical trials to help COVID-19 patients heal, such as studies to prevent progression of the disease and studies seeking proven treatments for critically ill patients.

In one of the country's first randomized clinical trials of its kind, an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health is financing a UTHealth study of whether infusions of convalescent plasma can prevent the progression of COVID-19. Another research team is evaluating whether an oral HIF (hypoxia-inducible factor) inhibitor can protect the lungs of COVID-19 patients. The inhibitor is designed to trigger the body's protective response to low oxygen levels.

At the same time, researchers at UTHealth's Cizik School of Nursing are studying the socioeconomic and mental health effects of the virus on Hispanics, while members of the MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences are exploring how the time of day a medication is taken might help a COVID-19 patient. In addition, experts at UTHealth's School of Biomedical Informatics are using big data to fight COVID-19.

"Within our six schools, we have the broad expertise that has positioned us as one of the few universities to help our community, Texas and the country through the pandemic and beyond," says Michael Blackburn, executive vice president and chief academic officer of UTHealth. "That starts with amazing clinical care, COVID-19 trials, real-time translational research, and expert knowledge from our public health leaders."

The School of Public Health is leading establishment of a study to be conducted with partners throughout Southeast Texas to assess the virus' long-term consequences, determine factors that contribute to severe outcomes, and enable UTHealth experts to develop and use treatments more effectively. In addition, a community information exchange will be built to connect vulnerable populations with healthcare and social service providers.

"In these unprecedented times, the six schools at UTHealth are rapidly evolving the science and medical care for patients with COVID-19 and our community," says Dr. Bela Patel, vice dean of healthcare quality at McGovern Medical School. "Prevention, new therapeutics, and post-COVID-19 care for our patients with prolonged COVID-19 disease is the mission for the UTHealth Center of Excellence for COVID-19."

Five cancer research teams have been selected to receive funds from a new initiative from the University of Texas. Photo via news.utexas.edu

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign to promote women's health access and education. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

This Houston organization is rethinking access to and education on women's health

women's health

If you browse through the required school curriculum in Texas, you might be surprised to find that sex ed doesn't quite make the cut. Sex education is optional in the Lone Star State and state law requires schools to stress abstinence when choosing to teach the subject, which can make understanding birth control even more confusing for both teens and adult women.

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign as a way to empower women with information on birth control and ensure access to contraceptive care regardless of age, race, relationship status or socioeconomic status. One click to the Own Every Piece website and you'll be greeted by the smiles of diverse women, along with videos of their birth control journey and educational information on various birth control options.

"You feel like the campaign is talking to you as a friend, not talking down to you as an authority or in any type of shaming way," says Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. One of her favorite areas of the website is the "Find a Clinic" page, connecting teens and adult women to nearby clinics, because "one of the biggest complaints from women is that they didn't know where to go," says Baker.

The website and social media platforms preach of body-positivity, empowerment, and knowledge. Prompts from a "true or false"-style quiz debunk myths from birth control weight gain to proper condom use on the home page. In the name of inclusivity, women can even upload their own birth control story to share with Own Every Piece's audience.

Baker and her team got their start in school districts developing programs for middle and high schoolers while also training teachers on how to discuss birth control openly. After working in over 20 school districts with the goal of preventing teen pregnancy through education, Baker identified a new problem: the significant lack of access to health care within the Houston community.

"We wanted to figure out what the major gaps were," Baker says. "What we found, of course, was how expensive birth control was — especially with some of the most effective methods."

Kimberly A. Baker is assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

Let's crunch some numbers. When interpreting the price of contraceptives, the type of birth control and access to health care can impact how much women pay out-of-pocket. According to Baker, the standard pill can cost anywhere from $10 to $30 a month while implanting long-acting reversible contraceptives like the IUD can cost upwards of $600 to $700. These calculations don't factor in the cost of a doctor's appointment, the removal of a device like the IUD, or even the average $4,500 it costs to give birth if you choose to have a child in the U.S.

After noticing gaps in who could pay for service, Baker and her team realized that some community centers didn't have the funds to have long-acting contraceptive on hand.

"We knew if we partnered with health clinics and health centers to help train them to better serve folks that they weren't serving well, and to give them more funds to buy methods that women couldn't probably afford...we would be filling that gap," she says.

Creating comfort and trust among women looking for contraceptives was another key intention in the campaign's launch.

"When [women] enter a community health clinic, they should feel confident to ask questions and to know that they're receiving all the accurate information they should be getting so they can make the best decision for them," says Baker.

Baker likes to think of the Own Every Piece project as a "more celebratory campaign around birth control that we hadn't seen before," she says. "There are so many stereotypes around sexuality and reproduction that are very shame-based," says Baker, particularly for "Latinx and Black women."

She acknowledges how epithetical birth control messaging that suggests women shouldn't "have more kids" or implies "pregnancy is a bad thing" frames reproductive health in a negative way. "We wanted a campaign that let women know that they own their body. They make decisions about their body, and birth control is a piece of that," she says.

The purpose of providing access took on a new meaning when the coronavirus hit. Since Own Every Piece began as a digital campaign targeted to Houston women ages 18 to 30, the initiative had a head start in the race to move online.

"We saw an opportunity to figure out how we can tell our community health centers to get into the telecontraception space because we've already established trust virtually through our campaign," explains Baker.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas held the title of the state with the most uninsured residents in the U.S. In a state with 2.9 million unemployment claims since March, access to affordable birth control has never been more essential for women.

"From women who lost their insurance due to losing their job because of COVID-19, this has been a godsend," says Baker.

Telemedicine has also added convenience for women who didn't have the time to check out a clinic in-person before the pandemic.

While COVID-19's strains on American health care continue to dominate headlines, birth control has also managed to make national news. On July 8, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can opt-out of birth control coverage—a decision that could result in an estimated 126,000 women losing contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to the New York Times.

The 7-to-2 Supreme Court decision is the latest in a seven-year-long litigation over religious objections to birth control. Outside of pregnancy prevention, birth control helps women cope with premenstrual dysmorphic disorder, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, acne, and a number of other issues.

"We have to work harder to have inclusive messaging around [birth control usage], because birth control isn't just about pregnancy prevention," explains Baker. "People use birth control for a number of needs. When you message it just around pregnancy prevention, people start to feel like something is wrong with being pregnant, and that's not what we set out to do."

Houston-based Mainline is providing the tournament software for an unprecedented esports showdown between the Big 12 schools. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston esports company to provide software for a first-of-its-kind collegiate tournament

game on

While college football's fate this fall is up in the air thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Big 12 Conference is definitely going to face off virtually thanks to esports software developed in Houston.

According to an announcement from the Big 12 Conference and Learfield IMG College, its multimedia rights partner, the tournament has opened for registration for all 10 member schools — Baylor University, Texas Christian University, University of Texas, Texas Tech University, Iowa State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and West Virginia University.

"This is a great opportunity to engage in an emerging space on a Conference-wide level," says Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a news release. "This opportunity is a unique way to provide original content from within a competitive environment during these challenging times. We appreciate the collaborative efforts that have made this first-of-its-kind Big 12 Championship tournament possible."

Houston-based Mainline, an esports software startup, has been selected to provide the tournament software for this unprecedented event, which is set to take place July 13 to 16. Each of the 10 schools will host its own single-elimination qualifying tournament featuring Madden NFL 20. Students have until July 10 to register to compete. Big 12 Now on ESPN+ will air both the schools' finals and the Big 12 Conference Championship tournament. The host of Big 12 This Week, Bill Pollock, will call the tournament.

Not only will Mainline's tournament software enable the competition, but it will allow Learfield IMG College to sell sponsors on esports visibility. Just like the football season, the esports tournaments will promote school branding and an opportunity to connect with student participants.

"It's more important now than ever to provide college students the ability to stay connected and engaged, and our technology can help aggregate the college esports community to help make that happen," says Chris Buckner, Mainline's CEO and founder, in the release. "This will multiply the opportunity, power and fun of esports to college students attending all Big 12 universities and keeps students competing while still practicing social distancing."

Earlier this month, Buckner joined InnovationMap's Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunities — as well as the challenges — the pandemic posed for his company.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Buckner says on the episode. "Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution."

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Comcast donates tech, funds to support diversity-focused nonprofit

gift of tech

A Houston organization focused on helping low-income communities by providing access to education, training, and employment has received a new donation.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. The gift is part of a new partnership with SERJobs that's aimed at educating and equipping adults with technical skills, including training on Microsoft Office and professional development.

“SERJobs is excited to celebrate 10 years of Comcast's Internet Essentials program,” says Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO, SERJobs, in a news release. “The Workforce Development Rally highlights the importance of digital literacy in our increasingly virtual world—especially as technology and the needs of our economy evolve. We are grateful to Comcast for their ongoing partnership and support of SERJobs’ and our members.”

For 10 years Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 10 million people to the Internet at home — most for the first time. This particular donation is a part of Project UP, Comcast’s comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity.

“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across Houston,” says Toni Beck, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Houston, in the release.

“Together, we have connected hundreds of thousands of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides," she continues. "Our work is not done, and we are excited to partner with SERJobs to ensure the next generation of leaders in Houston are equipped with the technical training they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. This summer, Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

Additionally, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston last December, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

President Joe Biden appoints Houston green space guru to lofty national post

new gig

Aprominent and nationally acclaimed Houston parks presence has just received a hefty national appointment. President Joe Biden has named Beth White, Houston Parks Board president and CEO, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the organization announced.

The NCPC, established by Congress in 1924, is the federal government’s central planning agency for the National Capital Region. The commission provides overall guidance related to federal land and buildings in the region. Functions include reviewing the design of federal and local projects, overseeing long-range planning for future development, and monitoring capital investment by federal agencies.

Fittingly, White was initially appointed to NCPC as the at-large presidential commissioner in January 2012, per a press release. She was reappointed for another six-year term in 2016. Most recently, White served as the commission’s vice-chair.

“I’m honored to chair the National Capital Planning Commission and work with my fellow commissioners to build and sustain a livable, resilient capital region and advance the Biden Administration’s critical priorities around sustainability, equity, and innovation,” White said in a statement.

Before joining Houston Parks Board in 2016, White served as the director of the Chicago Region Office of The Trust for Public Land, where she spearheaded development of The 606 public park and was instrumental in establishing Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge.

Renowned in the Windy City, she also was managing director of communications and policy for the Chicago Housing Authority; chief of staff for the Chicago Transit Authority’s Chicago Transit Board; and assistant commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. She was the founding executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for Urban Land Institute Houston.

The graduate of Northwestern and Loyola universities most recently received the Houston Business Journal’s 2021 Most Admired CEO award, per her bio.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.